The best American mob novels

Brandon Barrows Author Of Burn Me Out
By Brandon Barrows

Who am I?

I both read and write a lot of crime fiction, but organized crime is an aspect that I find fascinating. More than gangs of criminals, less than families, but still somehow very similar… I did a lot of research on real organized crime and re-read some of my favorite fiction pieces when I first had the idea for this novel and along the way, I realized that family is what you make of it and these people—and these characters—are yearning for a place to belong – something that really speaks to me, and has made me a fan of this kind of fiction.


I wrote...

Burn Me Out

By Brandon Barrows,

Book cover of Burn Me Out

What is my book about?

Al Vacarro is a made man, with all the honors and responsibilities that entails. But after a literal lifetime of violence in service to the Castella crime family, Al’s past is catching up with him and neither his present nor any future he can imagine seems to hold any hope for salvation.

For the sake of his family and his very soul, he needs out of “the life.” But how does a man escape the only world he’s ever known? This is a story of blood and desperation, and these are the last twenty-four hours of life as Al knows it.

The books I picked & why

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle

By George V. Higgins,

Book cover of The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Why this book?

An aging, low-level figure in Boston's Irish mob, Eddie Coyle is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of hijacking a truck. While he considers his options, his many friends and acquaintances consider what to do about him.

This novel is about seventy-percent dialogue, and it's all legitimately excellent and absolutely authentic. True to life, the way many people speak is annoying and imprecise – they meander, they tell stories that have nothing to do with what's going on, they forget what they were saying – but it ads a sense of realism that is extremely rare in novels.

It's a very good novel and the most realistic one I've ever read, but it's not an easy novel to read as it's sometimes frustrating – just like real people are. It is, however, a very rewarding novel if you like crime fiction and particularly the interactions between people in that strange netherworld of friendship/brotherhood/coworkerhood that entails being in the mob.


The Godfather

By Mario Puzo,

Book cover of The Godfather

Why this book?

The classic, quintessential Mafia novel – and with good reason. The first in a trilogy about Corleone crime family, it features a romanticized look at organized crime but is notable both for the sweeping scope of the story, as well as the fact that it introduced mainstream America to such now-familiar words as caporegimeCosa Nostra, and omerta.

While not especially realistic compared to some works, I enjoyed that The Godfather is a crime fiction reader's power fantasy dream – there are only bad guys here, so there are no consequences for anything that happens to them. And because of that, Puzo does a lot of terrible things and we, the readers, cheer all along the way.


Road to Perdition: The New, Expanded Novel

By Max Allan Collins,

Book cover of Road to Perdition: The New, Expanded Novel

Why this book?

Michael O'Sullivan, a brutal, but honorable, enforcer for a midwestern mob syndicate keeps a strict line between his work and his home life to the point where his children have no idea what he does for a living, only that it's "important." When Michael's twelve-year-old son stows away in his father's car to see what his father's work entails, and witnesses him committing a murder, all hell breaks loose and the pair travel around the country waging a guerilla war against the mob and trying to find a way to save themselves.

This is one of my favorite Max Allan Collins novels because you really get the depth of feeling Michael O'Sullivan has for his family, the guilt he carries, and the determination of spirit he exhibits all along the way. He isn't a good person, but that doesn't mean he can't do right by his family, and that really strikes a chord with me. It's something I've tried to imbue some of my own characters with. That devotion to family and doing the right thing for them even if everything else you do is wrong. I also really enjoy the depiction of loyalty turned against itself – Michael O'Sullivan was completely loyal to his organization until they turned on him and then his vengeance is practically Biblical.


Prizzis Honor

By Richard Condon,

Book cover of Prizzis Honor

Why this book?

Charley is a member of the Prizzi crime family, an underboss and top hitter, whose just done the family a good turn by killing a traitor who stole three-quarters of a million dollars from the family. That's nothing new for Charley, just a day's work, but he discovers, first, that his new girlfriend was the dead man's wife, and second, that she's a contract killer for the mob and has just taken a contract out on him

Richard Condon is notable for his satire novels, particularly The Manchurian Candidate which Hollywood stripped of its humor, both political and crime, but always focusing on greed and corruption, both political and moral. This humorous novel about a mob hitman is one of my favorites because it gives us something to laugh about when, really, there's not usually anything funny about murder and violence. The novel treats a heavy subject cheerfully, with a quick pace and quicker wit. Maybe it's not realistic, like some of my other favorites, but everybody needs a laugh – even Mafiosi with prices on their heads.


The Hunter

By Richard Stark,

Book cover of The Hunter

Why this book?

Professional thief Parker claws his way back from vagrancy and single-handedly takes on "The Outfit," a sub-syndicate of the national Mafia, in order to get revenge on the man who shot and robbed him – and used his own wife to help him do it.

This wasn't the first Parker novel I read, but it was one of the books that made me truly love the character. Parker is an outsider, but he has ties to the mob, and they first close ranks when he threatens one of their own. But when Parker's target is shown to be weaker than he's presented himself, the sharks smell the blood in the water and begin circling, seeing opportunities to rid themselves of dead weight and maybe promote themselves within the organization, until it's a matter of letting Parker have his way or his destroying them all.

"Family" and "honor" and so forth are common subjects in mob fiction, but it can be truly cut-throat, as well, something I think we sometimes forget. It's something that really resonated with me as I read it and something I try to keep in mind when writing.


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